No Simple Task!

(Me with my daughter in front of the grocery store mentioned in this story, at about the same time that it took place)

I can clearly remember learning one of my first valuable lesson in cross-cultural living. It was a sunny afternoon during our first week in Russia, and I decided to take my 9 month old daughter to get some groceries. This would double as an afternoon outing for her, and would also help me tackle one more thing on my to-do list. I loved multi-tasking, and I loved getting things done.

I started filling my two baskets with groceries, one hanging off of each handle of the stroller. Of course this simple shopping trip ends up being a bit more complicated as I remember that I don’t understand any of the labels, apart from the pictures. “Hummm, I wonder if this is salt?… This little white bag is really cheap and leaking white granular stuff…” I give it a quick sample and toss it in the basket.”

My daughter finds the trip exciting to a point, but soon gets bored and starts to fuss and squirm, and then cry. I don’t blame her since it took me 10 minutes to figure out which can with tomatoes on it might be the closest thing to tomato sauce. With baskets overflowing and very unhappy baby in tow, having only figured out about half of the items on my list, I go through the checkout line as fast as possible, manage an awkward exchange with the clerk, and then hang my groceries on the handles of the stroller to head home. We arrive at the front steps to our flat and I heave the stroller, baby, and groceries up the first few steps and realize that the next 3 flights are going to take nearly all of my physical strength. I heave everything up the stairs and into the flat only to almost collapse from exhaustion, both physically and emotionally.

I wasn’t used to a simple grocery shopping trip requiring so much mental, physical, and emotional energy. I was used to being able to hop in the car, get in and out of the store with twice the number of groceries in half the amount of time, and only a fraction the amount of energy. This time I had come home with enough food for about 2 days worth of meals, minus a few key ingredients, and had given up all hopes of accomplishing anything else of worth that evening.

The next days continued on similarly. I had a few “simple” tasks on my to-do list, only to find myself exhausted after accomplishing only one or two tasks. I was getting half the amount done in a day as usual, yet I was completely exhausted!

A dear friend who had been there a few years longer than me kindly reminded me that even the simplest of tasks would be quite a heroic feat for awhile. To the newcomer, a simple grocery shopping trip is a language lesson, a time to figure out new systems (bag your own groceries or not? Do you have to buy the plastic bags, or are they free?), a new lesson in interpersonal communication, often times a physical workout, and more.

This was a hard lesson for me to accept as a person who values productivity, but it has been absolutely key to my sanity. Figuring out life in a foreign culture is exhausting! Praise God that it gets significantly easier over time, but even after years there are some underlying things that still add elements of stress that wouldn’t be there if we were doing the same task in our home culture. We have to be gracious with ourselves and adjust our expectations to make room for all of the other things that we are learning along with accomplishing our  normal daily tasks. And when looking over the things accomplished on our to-do lists, we should be sure to give ourselves credit for those extra language lessons,  culture lessons, and workouts too!

If you’ve been overseas for a long time, do you remember learning this lesson? What has “productivity” looked like for you over the years and how has it changed? If you are new to the field, do you sometimes struggle with feeling unproductive? Has it been easy or difficult to adjust your expectations of yourself and to plan your days accordingly? Be encouraged that your accomplishments are many, even if doesn’t feel like it!

(Post by: Ashley)


6 Responses to “No Simple Task!”

  1. 1 Corinne September 25, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I definitely can relate to your grocery story…I have had many similar experiences in our last year in Hungary (our first on the mission field). I remember one particular trip to the gas station that left me feeling humbled and reminding myself, that this is an adjustment! And I need to cut myself some slack. I am used to being very independent in the U.S. and now in Eastern Europe, I must rely much more on my husband and others around me.

    Usually my husband takes care of our car needs (we own an old Russian made Lada), but we were out of town and our children were sick. We decided I would make the trip home with the boys so I didn’t have to care for them in a dormitory all week. I needed to get gas before the trip home. I pulled into the first gas station I came to, only to be abruptly greeted by the gas attendant. With butchered Hungarian and lots of hand signals, I finally realized I had pulled into the gas pumps the wrong direction. I must back out and go around the other way. Then once I turned around and got out to pump the gas, I realized I couldn’t get our locking gas cap off! I had to ask the attendant for help (again with poor language ability). Then he wanted to know how much gas I would like to purchase. I was so befuddled by the end, I was almost in tears and thinking…I never had any problems getting gas at home!

  2. 2 Summur Braley September 25, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Although I just moved to TX to be a home team missionary, there is still culture shock from moving from CA.
    I do not have nearly as hard of a time as you did, but I am still having some trouble. Why are groceries the hardest??? :O)
    We moved from a house to a second story apt. and i have two small girls, so unless i want to leave them alone in the apartment, which i don’t, i must go at night.
    I don’t know the area, and the stores, so it takes me twice as long to shop.
    It is more of a shock then i expected.
    He is good to not give us too much.
    Thanks for your story, it really makes me not feel so alone!!!
    God bless you and your ministry!

  3. 3 Carrie September 25, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I’ve had many, many experiences like yours—and I laugh at every one. How comical I must have looked back in the day!

    My first grocery trip in Romania, I was looking for yogurt. Finding a product with the Dannon name, I put it in the cart. The little MK who was with me said, “That’s not yogurt. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not yogurt.”

    So I found another area and found the Dannon label. Again, he said, it wasn’t yogurt. He directed me to the yogurt aisle.

    Later I found out that I nearly bought buttermilk and sour cream—–both of which looked exactly like the yogurt I bought. Learning to read was of utmost importance to me at that point 🙂

  4. 4 Ashley L. September 25, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    That is hilarious, Carrie! It reminds me of a similar very funny instance when a friend on a short term trip to our city accidentally bought keffier (like runny drinkable sour-cream) and thought it was cream. She used it for her coffee for several days before realizing that it wasn’t cream!

  5. 5 Shilo September 25, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Ashley, what a wise, encouraging post! I can definitely relate and am sure many others can as well! God bless you, friend!

  6. 6 richelle September 26, 2010 at 8:46 am

    hee hee… it is good to laugh at some of the craziness in our life, and the times we look and feel foolish because we can’t do the simplest of things.

    grocery shopping with the kids is quite the feat. only one of the about 6 stores I frequent has grocery carts, with a place for the little ones to sit… if they aren’t all being used. 🙂

    learning to find what you need to substitute for all the recipes that worked so well back in the States… causes frustration and the expense of buying something you think will work and ending up with a catastrophe in the end.

    and that doesn’t even touch trying to shop for things in the market with the little boys following you wanting to carry your bags (for a fee, of course), hawkers following you everywhere trying to sell you the knickknacks they are carrying on their heads, the old ladies wanting to touch, hold or play with the littler ones hair, knowing only enough zarma that people start rattling off and then having to give a blank stare and explain that you are still learning the language – after almost 10 years – because although you speak french, most of the market people/vendors don’t, stepping around puddles of who knows what, walking past the meat section and thankful one of the stores you frequent will order the meat you want from the market, package it, freeze it… and you just have to make the extra trip to pick it up… it takes so much emotional and physical energy that you come home feeling like you’ve put in a whole day’s worth of hard physical labor… and really, it has only been two hours out and about.

    my most embarrassing trip was the time I had two of the little ones in the basket part of the shopping cart while my friend had another one walking around holding her cart. i bought some yogurt to use as a starter for my own. unbeknownst to me, one of my girls stepped on the little plastic carton and it broke… and we dripped a trail of yogurt all over the store before we got to the checkout. it was all over the bottom of the cart, my daughter, her shoes, and several food items… not to mention the floor of the store. fortunately, the store owner was incredibly gracious. he gave the kids some candy (m&ms, i believe, which we can only infrequently get here) and replaced the yogurt, insisting that i did not need to pay for the one we destroyed. i think i aborted the rest of my shopping that day and we ate rice (and yogurt) for the rest of that week. 🙂

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